The Taciturn and the Garden Party

I had two thoughts on my mind just now. First one, then the other. Both of them seemed like good blog topics, and as I sat down to write on the second, I realized they’re connected, and interestingly so.

First, I was thinking about philosophy and how it affects me, and why I avoid it or hold it at arms’ length too much of the time. Then, I was thinking about how painfully banal most of my conversations are.

Philosophy does this to me: I start thinking about a philosophical problem, and if I don’t immediately grasp or at least intuit the solution, I begin to feel a rising agitation. My mind stirs awake. I swear I can actually feel the heat as my synapses spark, then ignite, then blaze. The mundane fades away. The pace of thought quickens. Hypotheses burst forth, illuminate, become unstable, go supernova, destroy everything that touches them. Vacuum, suffocation, panic. New hypotheses take form, furtively. Suddenly (Hello, Polaris) there’s enough to intuit a perspective on the problem; I get a sense of direction.

All the while I’m scrawling hurried notes. I can’t get the ideas out fast enough. They fall apart before they’re given form in words. Perspective is lost, my hypotheses no longer indicate anything, but shine stupidly at me like the visage of an idiot grinning at his ice cream cone. I start to come down from the high.

Krrack! Charred oaken hunks and flaming splinters fill the air. I jump out of my chair, fumble for a pen and a scrap of paper, can’t write, no backing, pen pokes through the sheet, there’s the wall. I lean up on it and write ten letters before the ink fails. Shaking the pen I hop from foot to foot like Rumpelstiltskin. “Motherf**ker!” I yell, toss the paper, fling the pen end over end into the wall like a tomahawk, wince (that’ll leave a mark). At the keyboard, typing in whatever app is open. Lots of typos, no time to correct. Where is that &%*@ing tape recorder?

The hypotheses shimmer like will-o’-the-wisps as I hammer out a rough paragraph. Not stars at all, deceptive beasts. Not stars, Chinese lanterns: varicolored, beautiful, resting in the branches of trees. Leaves glow pink and orange and blue and spring’s daylight green in the darkness. Ladies dressed in finery wander along garden paths, gentlemen at their arms. I take something from a silver tray and, shoeless, amble onto a lawn of soft, springy grass. Across the lawn several revelers are roasting marshmallows in the smouldering heart of an oak.

After I return, I creep into bed late, trying not to disturb my wife. I sleep for four hours, wake up, and start thinking along the edges of my garden until I find where the hedges reach out into cold, empty space. Once more into the breach.

When I’m in the grip of a philosophical problem, I won’t willingly think of much else. I can’t keep regular hours. I think until I find a garden or I’m exhausted, sometimes longer. Every answer uncovers new questions. I feel enticements approaching the irresistible as I wander virgin territory. One problem can be set aside. Two with difficulty. Ten? I won’t try it.

To philosophize as I’m naturally inclined would require totally free time, zero non-philosophical obligations. I’m skeptical that there’s any other way philosophy can be justly pursued. The less-than-half-assed attenuation that is my current philosophical life can only produce work vastly inferior, often dissipated or frivolous.

That’s not a complaint, but a concern. Who philosophizes if total immersion is the essential mode of philosophy? Certainly not scholars, with their classes, research, administrative obligations, etc. Certainly not anyone in the workaday world. Perhaps only beasts and gods.

This brings me to my unsatisfying conversations. I try not to think about my two favorite problems too much these days (how to demonstrate free will and crush the compatibilist word-jugglery, how to develop and test my solution to the problem of universals) because thinking about them would be like listening to half a movement of Mahler and switching to Third Eye Blind: jarring, unpleasant, and wasteful. But just today I realized that I haven’t been successful in closing off the philosophical wing of my brain. Sneakily, denied access to its favorite ideas, that insistent organ has begun thinking philosophically about the people around me.

Ideas are much more engaging conversationalists than people. People almost never talk about anything interesting at all, and if they begin to be interesting, they often seem inexplicably ashamed, as if they’ve noticed their fly is down, but can’t figure out how to fix it without drawing attention right to the problem area. An exception is in the afterglow of a party or an outing, especially where alcohol or adrenaline have been involved. I find folk are much more inclined to say something interesting during these otherworldly interludes. But you can tell then that they’re out of their element, like introverts liquored into loquaciousness. They’re not behind whatever they’re saying; they don’t mean it. The next day, they’ll have devolved into blocks, stones, worse than senseless things.


Do they sense, however remotely, sometime while backsliding from their infrequent peaks, the Garden beckoning? Do they sense that thinking about things meaningfully, as a philosopher does, can be all-consuming and transformative, and a powerful impediment to a ‘normal’ life? I hold philosophy at arms’ length knowingly, provisionally, so that I can keep traction on the far less interesting problems I’ve got to work on these days. But I can’t ever seem to truly shake its habits, and wouldn’t want to. Is some parallel gambit in incessant play among them, albeit one that’s spectacularly more effective?

I don’t have an answer, or even a bright intuition. … Forget it. I wonder what’s on VH1?

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